Graceless Education

When Andrew Delbanco, chair of American Studies at Columbia University, joined the faculty a quarter-century ago, he attended a meeting to discuss a budget crisis. The administration was recommending ending “need-blind admissions” as a cost-saving measure. The faculty were so disturbed by the suggestion that they voted by acclamation to give back a portion of their salary increase. Overcome with the spirit of solidarity, Delbanco joined the vote. Walking across campus after the meeting, the realization came to him that he had no idea what “need-blind admission” means. (It dictates that students must be admitted on academic credentials alone without any consideration of ability to pay. The opposite of “need-blind admissions” is “wealth-based admissions”—a practice not unknown in college budgeting past or present.)     

Delbanco’s reflections had results: “In the years following the meeting, I undertook to educate myself about American higher education...not just about admissions and financial aid, but about curriculum, teaching techniques, the financial structure of academic institutions, and more generally the premises and purposes of college education.” College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be demonstrates that he has done his homework. This is a brief, well-researched book, and an insightful account of the factors that shape the current higher educational landscape.

A book titled College may conjure visions of a leafy quad, tweedy profs expounding the humanities, and the chapel on the hill. Unhappily, as Delbanco points out, this vision is mainly myth. There are such small retreats of learning, but if you collected all the humanities majors graduating from the five hundred or so “liberal arts colleges” they would fit easily into the football stadium of any old Big Ten university. It would take all the humanities graduates from all institutions to fill the place. Over 60 percent of college-age Americans attend “post-secondary education,” but the vast majority attend an institution somewhere in the range between mega state universities and community colleges—with for-profit online “universities” tagging along in ever-growing numbers.

Delbanco’s interest is not “colleges” as opposed to research universities and all the rest of the motley array of institutions of higher education; his concern is undergraduate education. Columbia University, a major research university, incorporates a distinct undergraduate entity, “Columbia College,” marked by a rigorous two-year core curriculum. “Cores” are common enough in science curricula, where you must take tensor calculus before going on to relativity theory. What distinguishes the Columbia General Studies core is the heavy emphasis on the humanities. In the long history of American higher education, the humanities have been the defining mark of college education. No more. In 2009 only 12 percent of all BA degrees were in the humanities. Between 1990 and 2009 no American institution saw the percentage of humanities degrees increase. Delbanco’s fundamental concern is the “plight of the humanities” and what their presence (or absence) means for higher education, the country, and the culture.

His overall treatment of higher education is distinguished by the range of issues discussed. Among these issues is the high cost of college. When students face the prospect of a mountainous student loan, it is no wonder that art or Aristotle is avoided in favor of accounting. (See Charles R. Morris’s column in this issue.)

Most striking, however, is Delbanco’s attention to what college was. From the founding of Harvard College in 1636 until the last decades of the nineteenth century, a common “liberal arts” model dominated American higher education. “The American Scholar,” Emerson’s famous Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1836, stated the school’s mission: “Character is higher than intellect.” Liberal-arts education was “moral education.” The primary method for moral instruction was attention to the humanities as expressed by classic models—literary models from Cicero, moral models from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and the Bible. Natural science was scarcely in the old curriculum. When Charles Eliot was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1850s, he was the first student ever to have access to a science lab. Later, as president of Harvard, Eliot opened the classical curriculum to elective courses and, thereby, to significant scientific study.

Not only did science begin to take curricular space from the humanities, in the great controversy over Darwin, science directly assaulted traditional biblical beliefs. Science seemed to invert Emerson: “Intellect is higher than character.” Education in character—if such is possible—is not the responsibility of a “scientific” education. A new model of higher education, the research university, replaced the liberal-arts college. If the older humanities sought to recover classic morals, the research university was intent on discovering new truths. Even the traditional humanities could succumb to the scientific model. Delbanco cites Stanford’s “literature lab,” where digitized texts from “the long history of prose fiction” are scanned for recurrent word patterns.

The research model now dominates almost all of American higher education, even those five hundred smaller liberal arts colleges. The requirement for faculty appointment in the older colleges was normally a ministerial degree—my maternal grandfather held a doctorate in divinity but taught sociology at Ripon College. Almost all current faculty have research degrees in an academic specialty (or subspecialty). Not only is the proliferation of specialists expensive, the research method inevitably questions the verities that underlay the moral curriculum of the past.

If they pay any attention to the historic liberal-arts colleges at all, modern academics are likely to view them with anything from dismay to disdain. At best, old-style colleges supply amusing anecdotes about the students stealing prexy’s outhouse. Delbanco, in contrast, looks beneath the surface of the old curriculum and finds much to appreciate. Of particular interest to Commonweal readers is his positive attitude toward the role of religion—and what its absence from the contemporary campus implies. To be sure, Delbanco is no fan of the simple imitation of models or of the dogmatic cast formerly accorded biblical texts, but he senses that something vital was lost when an overarching aim, albeit religious, vanished from higher education.

On the Columbia campus there is an early-twentieth-century building with the following inscription: erected for the students that religion and learning may go hand in hand with knowledge. Viewing this message, Delbanco wonders whether the other university buildings were erected for some other purpose: not for students, but for a particular discipline such as “mathematics or chemistry or law.” The old liberal-arts college was clearly for students and with one common purpose: to mold student character. The advancement of knowledge was secondary at best. A faculty dedicated to a common educational mission contrasts sharply with the collection of specialists in the modern university. (The University of Chicago’s legendary president Robert Hutchins suggested that the only thing that connected the university’s academic disciplines was the heating plant.)

More surprising is Delbanco’s urging the importance of “grace” in shaping higher education. By emphasizing intellect and the presumed measures of that capacity—IQ, SAT scores, high school grades, and the like—colleges sustain a myth of “meritocracy.” “I got all A’s. I deserve to be at Harvard!” Traditional denominational colleges were suspicious of merit. We are not saved by merit, but by grace. Delbanco argues that over-reliance on merit and its ostensible measures can exclude from higher education those to whom God or luck has not granted the “grace” of family wealth, cultural enrichment, or a decent high school.

Delbanco also finds “grace” in daily instruction:

Every true teacher...understands [that] a mysterious third force is present in every classroom.... One never knows how the teacher’s voice will be received by the student.... Sometimes the spoken word is just noise.... Sometimes it can have surprising and powerful effects—yet it is impossible to say why and when this will happen.

Delbanco hopes his book will be used by administrators, faculty, and students as a means for understanding the culture of our colleges and universities, with both their modern scientific rigor and their historical moral overhang. Toward that aim, he has organized at Columbia “a colloquium for graduate students—future faculty—to discuss the history, current state, and future prospects for colleges and universities in the United States.” That such an effort—and this book—are needed can be illustrated by Harvard’s most recent attempt at curricular reform. A number of required core areas were recommended by a select committee, including a course on religion. The religion recommendation, influential faculty members complained, would be the intrusion of superstition into serious study. The religion requirement was dropped and, eventually, the whole effort came a cropper. Reflecting on the failure, the chair of the committee that proposed the reform commented: “We are just not accustomed to thinking about education in general terms. It is not our specialty.” Those who would still like to think about “education in general terms” should begin where Delbanco does, with the contrast between what college is now and what it was. Maybe then they can determine what it should be.

Related: A Higher Education: Can the Humanities Survive? by Andrew Delbanco
Bernard G. Prusak's review of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas

Published in the 2012-05-04 issue: 

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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